Updated on February 7, 2024
9 min read

What Are the Roles of Different Parts of the Tongue?

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What are the Different Parts of the Tongue?

The tongue is a complex muscular organ in the mouth and is made up of five parts. The five areas of the tongue perform different functions and are supported by separate nerves and blood vessels.

The five visible parts of the tongue are:

  • Root – The root connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth. It’s attached to the hyoid bone and the lower jaw, keeping it in place.
  • Body – The body is the portion of the tongue between the root and the tip. It’s very mobile and performs many different functions, including assisting in eating and speaking.
  • Tip – Also called the apex, the tip of the tongue is the point at the front of the mouth. Like the body, it performs complex movements and functions.
  • Dorsal surface – The dorsal surface refers to the top surface of the tongue. It’s covered in hairlike projections known as lingual papillae, which contain numerous taste buds and glands.
  • Ventral surface – The underside of the tongue is smooth and has no papillae. It contains many blood vessels that may make it purple.

Each of these five parts works in tandem with the others to perform the critical roles of the tongue.

What is the Tongue Made of?

The tongue consists of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels surrounded by a thick layer of connective tissue. A unique mucous membrane forms the surface of the tongue.

The mucous membrane contains papillae, which aid in taste and saliva production. The root of the tongue includes the tonsils, which are bundles of lymphatic tissue, as well as glands that produce saliva and mucus. 

Understanding the Functions of the Tongue

The tongue is a digestive organ that aids primarily in eating and speaking. It may also play a role in breathing and other processes. 


The tongue’s main job as a mobile, muscular organ is to help us eat and drink. It does this in several key ways:1

  • Chewing –The teeth and jaw muscles grind and mash food into smaller pieces; the tongue assists in this process by moving food around the mouth.
  • Compressing – Once the food is small enough, the tongue presses it against the roof of the mouth to form a bolus or a ball. 
  • Swallowing – The tongue moves the bolus into the back of the throat to be swallowed.
  • Salivating – The movement of the tongue stimulates the salivary glands in the mouth. Saliva helps start the digestive process and ease the food down the esophagus.
  • Tasting – The papillae allow us to taste the flavor and texture of our food. Taste once helped us determine whether food was dangerous or safe to eat. The tongue can also sense if food is too difficult to chew.
  • Sucking – The tongue helps us drink by creating pressure to suck liquids into our mouths. Sucking is a crucial function for breastfeeding babies.


The tongue is essential to the process of speech. It works with the lips and the teeth to help us speak to each other.

The positioning and mobility of the tongue enable the formation of different shapes, which create the various sounds of verbal language. The intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the tongue facilitate this process.

If a tongue is damaged or doesn’t function properly, it may impede speech.


The tongue’s muscles help keep your airway open to allow normal breathing, especially when lying down.6 If the tongue shifts away from its correct position, it can block the airway and contribute to obstructive sleep apnea.

Other Functions

The tongue plays a vital role in other functions beyond eating, speaking, and breathing. Its other functions include:

  • Defending the body with its gag reflex and lingual tonsils, which protect from germs1
  • Assisting in absorption, particularly of oral medications7

The Role of Taste Buds and Papillae on the Tongue

The mucous membrane on the tongue’s surface contains the papillae, which are hairlike projections that give the tongue its rough texture. A healthy human tongue has a whitish coating of papillae.

The papillae play a few major roles as part of the tongue. They:

  • Help grip food while you chew
  • Contain the taste buds that detect flavor
  • Sense temperature and touch

Taste buds are the cells that let you taste food and evaluate flavor. The basic tastes they can identify are:

  • Sweet
  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Bitter
  • Umami

There was once a widespread belief that different tongue regions were related to sensing each of the five different tastes. However, recent research found that the so-called “tongue map” does not exist.8

Experts suggest that areas of the tongue may be more sensitive to particular tastes, but taste buds can’t be sorted into distinct regions associated with each taste sensation.

The Tongue’s Muscles and Nerves

The tongue is a complex organ composed of many muscles and nerves interlaced with one another. These components must work together for the tongue to function correctly.

Eight Muscles of the Tongue

Eight major muscles compose the tongue, divided into intrinsic and extrinsic muscles. 

Intrinsic muscles are contained within the tongue and determine tongue shape. The four intrinsic muscles of the tongue are:2

  • Superior longitudinal muscle – Located immediately under the tongue’s surface, the superior longitudinal muscle shortens, widens, and curls the tongue.
  • Inferior longitudinal muscle – The inferior longitudinal muscle curls the tip of the tongue downward and helps shorten the tongue.
  • Transverse muscles – The transverse muscles contract to thin and lengthen the tongue.
  • Vertical muscles – The vertical muscles run vertically and intersect with the transverse muscles. They work to flatten the tongue.

Extrinsic muscles outside the tongue are responsible for attaching it to the mouth and determining its position. The four extrinsic muscles of the tongue are:2

  • Genioglossus – The genioglossus is a large, fan-shaped muscle that makes up most of the tongue. It lets you stick your tongue out, move it back and forth, and lower it.
  • Styloglossus – A small, thin muscle, the styloglossus retracts the tongue and assists in pushing food back towards the throat to swallow.
  • Hyoglossus – The thin hyoglossus muscle has four sides. It also retracts and lowers the tongue.
  • Palatoglossus – As the name implies, the palatoglossus is part of the soft palate. It helps lift the back of the tongue.

Nerves of the Tongue

The nerves connected to the tongue provide electrical signals to move its muscles and help it experience sensation. Several nerves innervate different areas of the tongue, including the:2

  • Hypoglossal nerve – The hypoglossal nerve innervates all the muscles in the tongue except for the palatoglossus. 
  • Vagus nerve – This major nerve innervates the palatoglossus, the epiglottis, and the epiglottal region of the tongue.
  • Chorda tympani – A branch of the facial nerve, the chorda tympani provides taste to the anterior two-thirds of the tongue. 
  • Lingual nerve – Branching from the trigeminal nerve, the lingual nerve gives sensation to the anterior two-thirds of the tongue.
  • Glossopharyngeal nerve – The glossopharyngeal nerve provides taste and sensation to the posterior part of the tongue.

Blood Vessels of the Tongue

Blood supply to the tongue comes primarily from the lingual artery, which connects to the external carotid artery. The lingual vein carries deoxygenated blood out of the tongue.

The lingual artery branches from the external carotid artery at the tip of the hyoid bone. It then splits into four different arteries:2

  • Suprahyoid artery ⁠— Supplies blood to the muscles attached to the hyoid bone
  • Dorsal lingual artery ⁠— Provides blood supply for the mucous membrane, lingual tonsils, soft palate, and epiglottis
  • Sublingual artery ⁠— Supplies blood to the sublingual gland, several tongue muscles, and the gums’ mucous membranes
  • Deep lingual artery ⁠— Marks the end of the lingual artery and gives blood supply to the tip of the tongue

The nerves, blood supply, and tongue muscles allow the organ to function as it should.

What is a Healthy Tongue Color? 

A healthy tongue is pink with a whitish coating formed by the papillae.

If your tongue is a different color, such as red, yellow, or black, you may need to contact a doctor and improve your oral hygiene.

What Conditions Can Affect the Tongue?

Many conditions can affect the tongue, which may or may not require treatment. Some common tongue conditions include:


Ankyloglossia is more commonly known as a tongue tie. It’s when a person has a short lingual frenulum.

The lingual frenulum is the portion of tissue underneath the tongue that connects the underside to the bottom of the mouth. It may extend as far as the tip of the tongue in people with ankyloglossia.

A tongue tie limits tongue movements and can present challenges with speaking, eating, and swallowing. Treatment typically involves surgical intervention.

Fissured Tongue

A fissured tongue occurs when there are small grooves or fissures on the dorsal surface of the tongue. It affects about 5% of the US population and is more common in males than females.9

The cause of fissured tongue is unknown. It may be a natural variation of tongue anatomy. It’s a harmless condition with no treatment.

Doctors advise people with a fissured tongue to practice good oral hygiene. They encourage brushing the tongue to keep food particles from gathering in the grooves.

Geographic Tongue

Geographic tongue results from the loss of papillae on the tongue’s surface. It may look like red patches with white borders that migrate around the tongue.

No one knows the cause of geographic tongue, though possible risk factors include allergies, genetics, and stress. It’s harmless and typically causes no other symptoms.

While there’s no cure for a geographic tongue, your doctor can prescribe a topical treatment if you experience discomfort.

Black Hairy Tongue

Black hairy tongue is a temporary, benign condition that makes the tongue look dark and furry. It comes from a buildup of dead cells on the lingual papillae. 

When the papillae grow longer than normal, they can become stained by food, drink, and bacteria. The appearance may be concerning, but black hairy tongue is harmless and causes no pain.

You can typically get rid of black hairy tongue within a few days of practicing good oral hygiene.

Tongue Cancer

Though rarer than the other conditions on this list, cancer can affect the tongue. Risk factors for developing tongue cancer include tobacco and alcohol use and the human papillomavirus (HPV).10

Oral cancer can affect the tongue’s top, sides, or base. Symptoms include lumps or sores on the tongue, pain in the mouth or throat, trouble swallowing, and voice changes.

Treatment for tongue cancer may involve surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.


The tongue is a complex digestive organ comprising muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. It plays an essential role in eating, swallowing, and speaking. The taste buds on the tongue’s surface allow us to experience the taste and texture of foods.

Your tongue should be pink in color with a whitish coating. Eight intrinsic and extrinsic muscles comprise the tongue, innervated by five nerves and supported by multiple blood vessels. Knowing the anatomy of the tongue helps us understand how it works and what makes it healthy. 

Some conditions may affect the tongue’s anatomy and function, including ankyloglossia (tongue tie), fissured tongue, geographic tongue, black hairy tongue, and cancer. You can keep your tongue healthy by practicing good oral hygiene and visiting the dentist regularly.

Last updated on February 7, 2024
10 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 7, 2024
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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  2. Dotiwala, A., and Samra, N. “Anatomy, Head and Neck, Tongue.” StatPearls, National Library of Medicine, 2022.
  3. Du Toit, D.F. “The tongue: structure and function relevant to disease and oral health.” Journal of the South African Dental Association, National Library of Medicine, 2003.
  4. Tongue.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2023.
  5. Salivary Serous Gland.” Diagnostic Surgical Pathology of the Head and Neck (Second Edition), ScienceDirect, 2009.
  6. Cheng et al. “Movement of the tongue during normal breathing in awake healthy humans.” The Journal of Physiology, National Library of Medicine, 2008.
  7. Bartlett, J., and van der Voort Maarschalk, K. “Understanding the Oral Mucosal Absorption and Resulting Clinical Pharmacokinetics of Asenapine.” AAPS PharmSciTech, Springer Link, 2012.
  8. Spence, C. “The tongue map and the spatial modulation of taste perception.” Current Research in Food Science, National Library of Medicine, 2022.
  9. Radfar, L. “Fissured Tongue.” American Academy of Oral Medicine, 2015.
  10. Tongue Cancer.” Cedars-Sinai, 2023.
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